Nowadays, cars are everywhere, and getting one is as easy as going to a dealership and picking one out. However, in the 19th century, building a car was the lifelong obsession of a handful of eccentric inventors.
There were several attempts to build motored road vehicles, few of which worked out. Notable failures included:
- The Puffing Devil (1801), the first steam car ever built. It weighed several tonnes, regularly lost steam power. On its third day of testing, it died an undignified death when it got stuck in a small divot, its driver abandoned it to drink in a nearby pub, and it proceeded to boil dry and melt down.
- The Summers and Ogle Tricycle (1833). A tiny three-wheeler that astonished onlookers by zooming along an urban road at the terrifying speed of 22 km/h. It ran out of fuel in roughly half an hour.
- The Dudgeon Car (1857), a steam car custom-built by an engineer in New York. It was so loud that the city council immediately passed an ordinance confining it to one street.
In the few years after the Dudgeon Car, a few brands of steam cars appeared in the U.S. and U.K. However, they largely only succeeded at making people hate cars. In the U.K. in 1865, people were so peeved that Parliament passed a nationwide motorcar speed limit of 6 km/h, slightly faster than a vigorous walk. It appeared that motorcars would be forgotten, relegated to the bin of other failed inventions and foolish dreams.
Which company made the first car?
That all changed when a still-familiar company made a startling breakthrough. That company was Benz, of Mercedes-Benz fame, which then consisted of the personal foundry of a single engineer: Karl Benz.
Karl Benz believed the problem with steam cars lay in the engine. Steam engines were based on external combustion, that is, the water that drove the pistons was separate from the combustion compartment. Not only was this criminally inefficient, but also it required a huge reservoir of water, which weighed cars down.
Benz instead look to an engine used on French barges, the internal combustion engine. This engine used explosive pellets of coal and resin. They were loaded into a cylinder, where they exploded, driving a piston that turned a paddlewheel. Then, the residue was removed, new pellets were added, made to explode again, etc. It was a lot of work, but it was light, it was cheap, and it was efficient.
Benz made the process automatic by substituting coal for refined oil, which had recently been invented, also by a German. Refined oil burned entirely into gas, and could be pumped in automatically. The only remaining challenge was resetting the piston. Benz developed a system where the piston makes four movements, one to pull air and fuel in, one to compress air and fuel together, a “power stroke” when the fuel ignites, and a final one to release exhaust.
Benz had invented the four stroke engine, a design that is still used, mostly unchanged, by cars today.
When was the first car built in the world?
After decades of work, Benz presented his invention in 1885. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen, though still in prototype, was designed using standard and replaceable parts, making it the first car design ready for mass-production.
The Patent-Motorwagen had one of the world’s most efficient engines. Weighing “only” 200 pounds, it produced about two thirds of a horsepower, achieving a maximum speed of 16 km/h
This still was not much of an improvement on the horse, which, after all, produced a full one horsepower. But the world saw the possibilities. Benz instantly became the largest motorcar company in the world, producing over 500 units by the end of the 19th century.
How much is the oldest car in the world?
At the time, the Patent-Motorwagen was fairly reasonable, costing 600 imperial marks (about four or five months’ pay for a typical working man)
They have appreciated in value, but not by as much as you’d think. One recently sold at auction for a conservative $42,900. That means it appreciated only by about 4% a year, even with all its brand name recognition. You could get returns like that on classic cars at modern specialty used car dealers.
What is the oldest car brand still in production?
assembly-line production, in which cars were moved from workstation to workstation, with each worker or team of workers performing only one task. This greatly saved on training and personnel costs. Where each Benz could take 12-20 hours to produce, hand-built from scratch in a single location by a highly-trained team of craftsmen, each Ford was cranked through the factory in under three hours.
Benz soon realized that he could not beat Ford. He could only imitate him. After WWI, Benz opened new assembly-line-based plants, rapidly turning out cars that transformed Germany. Like Ford, Benz produced cars for the middle class: affordable, dependable, fixable, replaceable.
However, some people wanted something else. They wanted speed. They wanted luxury. They wanted what could only be provided by a different company: Daimler. For a long time, Daimler struggled in obscurity, producing custom racecars for Germany’s nobility. Then they produced a model that would change European cars forever: the Mercedes.
The Mercedes: a low-riding, electric-ignition, wide-track, leather-upholstered tour de force. At a race in France in 1901, it blew the competition away by achieving a stunning top speed of 75 km/h. It became the car for the young and rich of Europe.
However, the good times in Europe couldn’t last forever. After WWI, Germany was made to pay reparations, causing the economy to bottom out by 1924. The young and rich were now middle-aged and poor, and weren’t buying luxury cars. Daimler was brought to its knees.
Benz saw an opportunity and proposed a merger. Daimler got enough capital to stay afloat and the expertise to switch to assembly line production, while Benz got the Mercedes name. In 1926, the Mercedes-Benz company was born.
What country had cars first?
Although cars started in Germany, they did not impact the culture as much as they did in the United States. In the United States, cars were everything.
In 1885, the U.S. was spread out and still developing its rail and river networks. When news of Benz’ accomplishment reached American entrepreneurs, it brought with it the possibility of rapid transit, anywhere in the country, without building new infrastructure. The possibility was irresistible.
By 1900, over 100 companies were producing automobiles in the U.S. In 1902, Americans bought over 3000 cars from Oldsmobile alone, surpassing the entire production of the German car industry by that point.
Who invented driving?
The Patent-Motorcar was steered with a lever connected directly to the front axle. This was designed to be used by one hand, making sudden and tight turns difficult. The only “power steering” in this period was reaching over to frantically push the tiller with both hands.
This had to change. The steering wheel was developed in secret, in France, by the Panhard company (now part of Arquus). They unveiled it dramatically. At an annual race in 1894, a friend of the company, Alfred Vacheron, turned up with a Panhard modified to use a steering wheel. He lost, but the steering wheel won. They became standard for Panchard, then Rolls, then the world.
The technology for driving was established. However, the culture and laws were not.
At first, motorcar drivers followed the rules of horse-drawn vehicles. In spread-out, wide-open countries like France, Germany, and the United States, coaches drove on the right, so that all four horses would always be in range of the driver’s whip hand (the right). In Britain, where coaches rarely had more than two horses, drivers stayed on the traditional left. Motorcar drivers followed the same rule, creating conventions that have lasted to this day.
In 1908, a U.S. lawyer invented the concept of “speeding.” However, it was not until 1930 or so that laws were passed to enforce this. Traffic fatalities were high, especially in Detroit, the center of U.S. car culture. In a typical year, Detroit police recorded hundreds of traffic fatalities, most of whom were pedestrians. This called for drastic measures. In 1915, the city of Detroit rolled out the first of a new type of safety measure: the stop sign.
Pedestrians mostly had to hustle to get out of the way or be run over. Eventually, laws were created to protect them. However, by then, the balance had shifted. Cars had conquered the road.